If you’ve been working for a while, you’ve probably seen bad leadership in action. You’ll have noticed that there is no shortage of material telling us how to be good leaders.
There is also an abundance of material telling us all about what bad leaders do. But the problem with talking about bad leaders is that they often aren’t the ones focusing on improving their leadership!
That’s why in my articles, I try to suggest approaches that thoughtful leaders can take away and put into action. Rather than provide a big list of points about bad leaders, I’d rather help you (the leader who wants to get better) to improve.
So in this article, I do talk about bad leadership. But I do it in an effort to create some takeaways that you might be able to apply in your role.
What Is Bad Leadership?
To set the scene, let’s talk about what bad leadership is. For me, bad leadership includes:
- Failing to consider the impact of your leadership on the people around you
- Focusing more on satisfying your own needs, than the needs of others; and
- Role-modelling behaviours that sets a foundation for a toxic team or organisational culture.
I would summarise all this by saying that bad leadership fails to adequately consider the needs of the people who you are leading.
I feel it’s worth saying that the purpose of this article is not to convince malicious, power-hungry, bullying or egotistical leaders that they should change their ways (they probably aren’t reading).
Instead, it’s to help thoughtful leaders avoid some of the pitfalls that may have them falling into bad leadership behaviours.
The Most Fundamental Cause of Bad Leadership
Based on what I’ve seen during my career, I believe that the main cause of bad leadership is simple. To me, bad leadership happens when a leader isn’t coping with some aspect of their leadership role.
In other words, the bad leader is distracted, taking his eye off the ball. She loses sight of the big picture and focuses on the wrong things.
Rarely do I believe that leaders are intentionally malicious. It certainly might feel that way when you’re working for a bad leader. But instead, I feel they are facing challenges they simply can’t cope with which is leading to undesirable behaviour.
Bad Leadership Can Happen Under Pressure
Another factor to keep in mind is that leaders are under pressure from different directions. It might be pressure from their own boss, or perhaps a colleague is making demands they can’t meet.
The higher a leader climbs, the more difficult the situation becomes. The most senior leaders try to balance the needs of different stakeholders, who might not see eye to eye.
I’ve seen many situations where people in an organisation accuse a senior leader of bad leadership, without knowing about all the tricky things they are dealing with.
The intention of this is not to say that leaders aren’t to blame. Every leader is accountable for their own behaviour.
This is good news.
Because it means that bad leadership is not necessarily intentional, and that the situation can be improved.
If all bad leaders were malicious, nasty people, then all hope would be lost.
I choose not to believe that this is the case.
Learn More: Are You an Insecure Leader? Watch for These 10 Signs.
Bad Leaders Are Desperate to Fulfil Their Basic Needs
When thinking about bad leadership, I am reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
In Maslow’s hierarchy, we humans seek to fulfil our most basic needs first, like air, food and water. After these are satisfied, we look to fulfil higher-level desires to make us feel safe and secure, like shelter and financial security.
Only when these base-level needs are met do we start moving towards the psychological needs like having satisfying relationships or seeking personal fulfilment.
From a leadership perspective, this means a couple of important things:
- Leaders who feel safe and secure are more likely to have the headspace to pursue higher level needs such as focusing on being the best leaders they can be; and
- Leaders that feel vulnerable or incapable are more likely to focus inwards, on satisfying their own personal needs (and forgetting about the needs of others).
Leaders who are laser-focused on their own needs are more likely to show signs of bad leadership. They have more of a tendency to slip into “fight or flight” mode and make knee-jerk reactions. They forget about the needs of their people to focus only on their own.
These are the leaders you see frantically running from meeting to meeting, trying desperately to please their own boss for fear of being fired or being seen as a poor performer.
Feeling unsafe, insecure and vulnerable in a leadership role is not the place where you will show your best leadership.
Bad Leadership Can Come From a Lack of Confidence
When leaders aren’t feeling confident, bad things can happen. This can often show up as insecurity on behalf of the leader.
A lack of confidence can show up in many ways, but I find that the most common signs include:
- Tentative behaviour: Unconfident leaders may fail to commit to a course of action. Instead, they may hold themselves back to reduce the risk of a poor outcome. Instead of taking the lead, this might mean standing back and letting others go first.
- Asking for validation and permission: Leaders who lack confidence may ask for guidance or advice a little too often. Of course it’s useful to test your thinking and make sure you’re on the right track, but not for every aspect of your role.
- Overcompensating: Insecure leaders feel out of their depth, so they may try to show signs of confidence by pretending they know the answers. They may not ask for input or take guidance because they believe they need to be “the boss”.
All of these symptoms of a lack of confidence can lead to bad leadership. Leaders who lack confidence are often fighting an internal battle of self-doubt which can have them focusing internally, rather than on their people.
How to Build Confidence In Your Leadership Role
Building confidence can take time, but it is a foundation of great leadership. Confidence isn’t about knowing everything or believing you’re the best leader in the world.
It’s about feeling self-assured in your own ability to do the job. And it’s about knowing when you can handle things, or when you should get help.
Real confidence isn’t bravado or boasting. It’s about knowing your limitations, being comfortable that they exist and still having the courage to lead the way.
Confidence is also not a requirement for action. Confidence comes from taking action over time.
To build confidence, you can try:
- Finding a mentor or a coach: A mentor can guide you and offer advice, because they’ve done it before. A coach will challenge your limiting beliefs and help you develop solutions and take action. (Want to work with me? Learn more here)
- Building a supportive network: Trusted colleagues can provide you with a useful sounding board for your leadership challenges. They’ll also support you when times are tough.
- Getting out of your comfort zone: We grow the most when we leave our comfort zone and push our boundaries. However, you need to do this in a controlled way. Being too uncomfortable can shatter our confidence if we fail. It’s about finding the right balance.
- Learning: A lack of skills or experience can cause a lack of confidence. If you have skill gaps that are making you feel out of your depth, work to address them through training or learning from someone more experienced.
Lack of Planning Causes Bad Leadership
Many leaders find planning boring. It’s doesn’t feel like work, because you’re not actually doing the work.
However, failing to plan is a major cause of bad leadership. A lack of planning often leads to:
- Unintended consequences, where people are badly impacted because a lack of consideration for their needs.
- Reactive effort, when unexpected events occur. Time is spent running around fire-fighting instead of leading. This can cause further problems if knee-jerk reactions are taken which make things worse!
- More pressure, when things start to go wrong, causing you to focus all your attention on the problems. This can take your focus off your people as you become absorbed in solving issues.
There is of course, such a thing as too much planning. You will never prepare for every eventuality. However, even doing basic planning can avoid many headaches in the long run.
Planning can also help you seem prepared and thoughtful. It makes you look like you know what you are doing, which can build confidence in the people around you.
Would you be OK with letting someone build your house without a plan?
Well, you probably shouldn’t lead without a plan either.
Planning can be as simple as having a checklist of items you need to complete. Or a timeline showing when tasks need to be finished.
You can learn more about basic planning in my Time Management for Leaders Online Course.
Short-Term Thinking Leads to Bad Leadership
Related to a lack of planning is the problem of short-term thinking.
Short-term thinking means we only really consider the immediate future, rather than the long-term consequences of what we do.
From a leadership standpoint, this is bad news. When we think only for the short-term, we focus on immediate results and solving the problems we have right now.
This can lead to longer-term problems that could have been avoided by taking a more thoughtful approach.
A Simple Example of Short-Term Thinking
Meet Tom, who leads a small team. They’re currently working on a project that is set to be delivered in 8 weeks.
Tom’s boss comes to him and directs him to deliver the project in 4 weeks instead. Tom knows that this will increase the pressure on himself and his team.
The team is already busy, and not really handling the workload. This would make it worse. The possibility of people burning out or leaving the team is real.
Short-term thinking would be agreeing to move the timeline forward to please his boss. This would remove the immediate pressure on Tom.
However, this may lead to burnout and the departure of key team members. The project might be finished, but there will be more work around the corner. Not good when you’re dealing with a burnt out team.
Instead of the short-term option, we could examine a longer-term solution. Tom might negotiate with his boss to deliver less in a shorter timeframe (instead of the whole project).
Or, Tom could use the request to gain additional resources to help his team deliver in time. Tom could also push back and say that moving the deadline is not the best course of action, as a more direct approach.
The point is, taking quick action without considering the long-term implications can be problematic and result in bad leadership.
A Lack of Empathy Can Result In Bad Leadership
As we looked at earlier, when we are focused only on our own needs, we lose sight of the needs of others.
This means that we look inward, rather than outward. The obvious problem with this occurs when we fail to focus on what our people need from us.
People are a leader’s greatest asset. After all, they are the reason for a leader’s existence!
Some leaders are more goal-focused than others, whilst others are more motivated by serving the people around them. Each approach can be a strength under the right circumstances.
The important point to remember here is that leaders must consider the needs of their people, as well as their own.
This helps to create an environment that will help your people to do their best work, which can lead to better achievement of the team’s objectives.
How Leaders Can Build Empathy
Empathy might not come naturally to you in your leadership role. You might be more focused on the goal you’d like to achieve. This is OK, but empathy will help you to understand your team, so you can create conditions for success.
So to build empathy, try the following:
- Having frequent 1 to 1 meetings: I am often surprised when leaders fail to meet individually with team members. This is a key way to really understand what drives them and what their challenges are. You can use this input to create an environment for them to thrive.
- Encouraging open communication: Ask for input from your people, and act on their suggestions where you can. Engage with your people individually and as a team to encourage input in different ways.
- Challenging your biases: Sometimes we make assumptions because of our natural biases. We think our people want certain things, when they may not. We believe our people are just like us, which is often not the case.
If I find that I’m ever focusing too much on myself, and not on my people, I like to remind myself with the following questions:
How will this leadership action impact my people?
Why do my people care about working on this task?
What gets my people up in the morning? What motivates them?
Which parts of the role do my people like most?
If I don’t know the answer to these questions, then it might be time to have a conversation.
Learn More: 1 to 1 Meetings: Let’s Make Them Better.
But What About the Bullies and the Ruthless Career Climbers?
You might be wondering about the bullies and the political animals who backstab their way to the top of organisations. The ones with the big egos, who need to be at the top.
Well, they certainly exist.
However, I’ve met enough senior leaders to know that you don’t need to be this way to lead at the highest level. Certainly, you need to be aware of politics and work within it, but you don’t necessarily need to let your leadership standards fall.
I don’t write for the bullies or ruthless leaders who are self-absorbed and create toxic cultures. To them, people are a commodity to be exploited to further their own ambitions.
And that’s the last I’ll say about them.
Nobody Is Immune to Bad Leadership
In this article, I’ve taken a look at a number of factors that I feel contribute to bad leadership.
An important thing to remember is that we may all show up as bad leaders at one time or another.
Nobody is immune. Many of us will lose focus on our people when things get tough. When I look back, I’ve certainly found times that I wish I had done better. I’ve also failed to take action, when perhaps I should have.
If we are striving to show good leadership for most of the time, we’re doing well. You’ll have occasional slip-ups, but that’s because you’re human.
Feel like you’re slipping into bad leadership behaviours? Learn more about working with me and lead with confidence.